by Michael Rectenwald
In the fall of 2016, I was a left communist. As I will show below, I came to this position after a circuitous tour through numerous sects of Marxism. A year later, I had thoroughly renounced Marxism and embraced the views of free market economists and philosophers Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard. How did a career world tourist of left intellectual and radical movements find a home in libertarian social and economic thought? And why did it take twenty-five years to defect?
As any Marxist can tell you, ideology can blind one to the insights that might disrupt one’s political adhesions, often against one’s own best interests. Only it was Marxist ideology itself that blinded me. From where did this ideology emanate? From the institutions with which I had been involved for twenty-five years, most especially from my sojourn through academia.
Down the Rabbit Hole of Academic Leftism
I was burned out from a career in advertising and decided to go to graduate school. All through my advertising career, I had been writing poetry and short fiction. The more I pursued this avocation, the more I became alienated from advertising, and the greater my desire to change my life.
I left a relatively high-income career to undertake what some told me was not only impossible but possibly insane. I had a few friends in the know. They repeated the well-worn truisms. “There are no jobs in academia.” “As a white male, your chances of getting a job in the humanities are quite remote.” “You can’t raise three children, do full-time graduate work, teach at least one class per semester [required for the tuition remission and stipend], and hold down yet another job, all at the same time.” These warnings did not dissuade me. In fact, remarkably, they strengthened my resolve.
But I did have three children and a wife to support, so I couldn’t just quit everything and go to back to school. I needed a job that would support my academic ambitions. I landed a position at Penn State, Erie, the Behrend College, teaching advertising and running the sales force of interns for the campus-based radio station. This would be my transitional job, I thought. My wife, Gretchen, went along with my plans and picked up some of the slack money-wise, by eventually returning to her career in property management. I enrolled in a graduate program at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland. Because I was a full-time employee, Penn State would cover half of my tuition. We rented a farmhouse west of Erie, on a property with a couple large ponds and five acres of land. I didn’t want my wife and kids to suffer while I embarked on my long march through the institutions of academia.
However, the career path I’d chosen involved transformations of a wholly different kind than expected. The sharp reduction in income, the many nights of curtailed sleep, the sacrifice of almost all other forms of “entertainment,” the stress and strain on family and marriage, and the certain prospect of uncertain prospects—these were only the preconditions of the story, not the story itself.
My academic advisor at Case recommended that I begin with one class per semester and suggested an initial course entitled Cultural Criticism. I soon learned that it was taught by the maverick in an otherwise more “traditional” literature department, Martha Woodmansee. Martha was a sage academic, not only au courant in the field but also steeped in European cultural history and philosophy. She had master’s and doctoral degrees in both German and English from Stanford. She knew Kant, Hegel, Marx, and the notorious Frankfurt school—in the original German and in English translation. She was a materialist cultural historian and a debunker of what she’d called in her then latest book “the cult of authorship.”
Cultural Criticism was a primer in “theory” and cultural studies. It started with the Frankfurt school, the group of German Jewish intellectuals who founded the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research at Goethe University in 1923, then fled Nazi Germany in 1933. Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse emigrated to the United States and took refuge at Columbia University and later at UC Berkeley and elsewhere. Their writing inaugurated two fields of study—critical theory and media studies. Theory also included postmodern theory, including poststructuralism and deconstructionpsychoanalytic feminismpostcolonial theory.
This is what I spent many hours away from my wife and kids studying: I would hunker down in the basement of the house, reading, for example, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” while my kids watched Nickelodeon game shows in the living room upstairs. I realized the irony and contradictions in all this, but in my zeal, I overlooked them all.
The precise name for Martha’s particular approach is called new historicism. New historicism is a method marked by attention to the specificity of historical moments and events, as opposed to universal verities. It holds that our only access to the past is through “texts,” broadly construed as any carriers of signification or meaning. But contrary to an “old historicism,” as it were, texts don’t exist in a vacuum, handed down to us through literary history, but rather in conversation with other texts, including “nonliterary” texts—all of which are involved in ongoing discourses. Texts are not mere reflections of the past but interventions into ongoing conversations of their era—rhetorical structures that have to be read closely in order to discern and then excavate their meaning and import in connection with the conversations within which they intervene.
Looking back on my earliest writing for this course, I can see that I had become quite disoriented. I was trying to square my desire for a life of the mind with the “demystification” of everything that I cherished about literature and writing. As I saw it, literature represented an alternative to mass culture, a means of constructing alternate worlds. But according to Martha, I had to give up my “literary” interest in literature as such, not only because such an approach was elitist but also because the more interesting work involved studying “cultural problems.” I was to read literature, and culture at large, as a new historicist and cultural studies theorist. Literary and other texts served as mere props, grounds for advancing various agendas, both for the author and the theorist. Theory would provide the means for reading literature as cultural politics. I was to become versed in the theoretical perspectives that could be turned on literature, or any “cultural object,” for that matter, in order to read it for the cultural and political work it was doing. This approach was merely one possibility. Another would be to forget about literature entirely.
An antiliterature agenda had advanced so far in English studies by this time that at one conference, a professor of English at Berkeley decried the fact that other attendees had presented papers about novels. How regressive! One prominent scholar had even written a book entitled Against Literature, which argued for “a negation of the literary that would allow nonliterary forms of cultural practice to displace literature’s hegemony.”
Martha’s course would equip me for the rest of my academic career. Every subsequent course would involve theory, with the professor leaning toward one or more theoretical perspectives. One soon came to understand, for example, that one didn’t draw on “vulgar Marxism” when the professor was a “nuanced” Marxist feminist, or, especially, a deconstructionist. The distinctions might sound like hairsplitting to the uninitiated, but they were sharp divisions to the cognoscenti.
A Dip into Marxist Politics
After finishing the MA, I moved the family back to Pittsburgh. I began attending meetings of the International Socialist Organization (ISO). The Pittsburgh chapter was led by an East Indian and his wife and consisted of about ten regular members, including graduate and undergraduate students. Most of these people had one reason or another for being resentful about “existing conditions.”
I took my oldest son, John-Michael, to some of these meetings, and at first was proud to expose my ninth grader to such revolutionary ideas. But I soon bristled at the authoritarian character of this group. It rubbed against the grain of my belief in intellectual independence. When, upon the chapter leader’s recommendation, I read Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?, I remember thinking, “What is to be done? Avoid Lenin.”
The tipping point was a national meeting in Chicago. There, in a large auditorium, speakers ranted about the horrors of capitalism, after which we were sent on a march while chanting “Stop the barbarism!” It was a Friday at around 6 p.m. Imagine encountering such a march as you passed by on your way home from work. I found the whole exercise bizarre and obtuse, with no idea what it was supposed to mean. Then there were presentations and discussions on the French, American, and the Bolshevik Revolutions, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and more. The stern seminar leaders solicited questions, but only to supply the “correct” answers drawn from the party line. On the way home, one of the drivers from the Pittsburgh chapter, a rather disgruntled young woman, hit a deer, and we were asked to contribute money to cover the damages to her car. Since the car was not my property, I found the request outrageous and argued that in “civil society,” such matters were addressed in court. The members scoffed at my suggestion that we lived in a civil society. Capitalism was anything but civil, they suggested. I quit the group. The ISO consisted of authoritarian Leninists that brooked no dissent. It has since collapsed.
Stranger Marxist and Postmodern Waters
By the time I entered a PhD program in literary and cultural theory at Carnegie Mellon (CMU) in the fall of 1997, my commitments wavered between Marxism and postmodernism. You might say that I was an academic Marxist with a postmodern inflection. That is, I believed that that the “totality” of social relations and interactions—including all cultural, economic, and political activity—could be best comprehended in terms of the totalizing, systemic structures of capitalism. But as I wrote in Springtime for Snowflakes: Social Justice and Its Postmodern Parentage, I was also a postmodern subject:
I was a postmodern subject because I acknowledged that although compelling, Marxist theory was necessarily incomplete. I retained postmodern theory as a “supplement,” a word given new significance by Derrida; as a supplement, it served as both an addition to Marxism, and as a possible substitute for it—something that might come in handy, if or when needed. Postmodern theory’s appeal to me was precisely that of différance—the word Derrida coined to signify both difference and deferral. Différance suggests the impossibility of interpretative finality (endless difference of meaning), as well as the deferral of satisfaction akin to the ever-unfulfilled consumer under consumer capitalism—“I can’t get no (theoretical) satisfaction.” The allure of postmodern theory’s différance overwrote any impulse I may have had for theoretical closure. If becoming a “theory head,” as it had earlier been called, required a thorough understanding of Marxism and Critical Theory, it also required more than a passing familiarity with postmodern theory. The latter supplemented one’s tool kit and might provide escape hatches from the “totality,” like Ginsberg’s poetry had done for me previously—a space for “the play of signifiers,” a “ludic” valve for letting off the pressure of systemic steam.1
Later, I would learn from a Trotskyist in New York that postmodernism, and even academic Marxism, were heretical forms of leftism to be roundly condemned.
But for now, my embrace of Marxism made no real practical difference. Except for the brush with the ISO and an activist stint after the 2000 presidential election, when I’d founded the site CLG News, I had never been involved in practical politics. I was not about to become involved again any time soon, or so I thought. If anything, Marxism had only increased the cynicism that I’d long held for a political system that seemed irrelevant to me and my life on the ground. I enjoyed Marxist theory, while ironically becoming credentialed to exploit a “bourgeois” academic niche. Theory appealed to me intellectually. As an academic Marxist, I figured that my role was an ideological one. As a cultural producer, I might intervene in what Marx had called the “superstructure”—to effect indirect change to ideology.
At CMU, I took the required minicourses, half a semester each, in “feminisms,” “Marxisms,” postcolonial theory, theories of subjectivity (poststructuralism), semiotics, as well as full courses in the Frankfurt school, science studies, the rhetoric of science, media theory, the Hungry Forties (a course centered on “the Condition of England Question” of the 1840s, which I later taught in a different incarnation), and eighteenth-century cultural studies. Except for science studies, I would leave most of this theory behind when I began writing my dissertation, focusing on nineteenth-century British science and culture.
I read at night and on Saturdays and Sundays. I would put the kids in front of the TV, shut the door of the TV room, and read theoretical and historical texts for hours on end, while their mother worked as an apartment rental agent to help support the family. I also worked as a writer for the Robotics Institute at CMU, while teaching two classes in the English department and one at another university. Meanwhile, my academic venture had driven a wedge into the marriage. I remember coming home after teaching classes one day and finding my books gone from the bookshelves in the living room and office. When I asked Gretchen about them, she told me that she’d put them into boxes and loaded the boxes into the attic. By the time I began writing the dissertation, we were separated, and soon after I filed for divorce. As it turned out, the divorce would allow me to go on the national job market; I could move wherever I found a job.
After completing the PhD and a postdoc at CMU, I took a job in Durham, NC, where I taught at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) and later at Duke. My schedule was intense, as usual. I taught four classes per semester at NCCU and one at Duke.
At this point, I slid back into standard left liberal support of the Democratic Party. I thought I’d had my fill of far-leftist organizations and simply wanted to pursue my life’s work as a scholar and teacher. In the spring of 2008, a young candidate for the Democratic nomination for president made a campaign stop at NCCU. I got the distinct impression that he was using his race and “hope and change” rhetoric to bamboozle the audience and mislead them into thinking that he was a radical. I also had a strong feeling that he’d win the Democratic nomination.
I decided to go back on the job market and landed a position at New York University, an offer that I couldn’t refuse. Soon after, in the fall of 2008, the financial crisis struck. I wasn’t surprised when the “hope and change” political candidate supported the bailouts. By now he’d secured the nomination. I wrote about the fraud for the website I’d started after the 2000 election. John-Michael lived with me in a small rent-stabilized apartment in “Nolita,” north of Little Italy, and we had a fight about Obama. He suggested that my criticism of Obama was based on Obama’s race. But it was not based on Obama’s race per seuse of race. Contrary to his rhetoric, Obama’s loyalty clearly lay with Wall Street and not “Main Street.” I had started reading the World Socialist Web Site and decided to contact the organization behind it, the Socialist Equality Party (SEP).
Through the Marxist Looking Glass
The SEP was a Trotskyist sect and a party of the Fourth International. After exchanging several emails with a party member, I met Fred (“Fred” was a pseudonym), an emissary from the party. One cold, dark night in November, wearing my new Armani coat, I struck Fred as an unusual prospect for party membership, and he told me so immediately. I didn’t dress like a member of the working class. Fred, meanwhile, was nondescript, stocky, middle-aged, and wore a blue stuffed jacket, tossle cap, and blue work pants. I later learned that Fred’s day job was as a legal clerk.
We had coffee at Dojo on West Fourth and Mercer Streets. Fred handed me a copy of Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed and a number of party pamphlets. I began attending SEP meetings, once or twice a month, sometimes with my younger son, Dylan. The SEP promoted the immediate nationalization of the banks and major industries. At one meeting, the party chairman, David North, denounced postmodernism, academic Marxism, and neo-Marxism—basically everything I’d studied since beginning graduate school. At another meeting, North defended Trotsky against his latest biographer, Robert Service, delivering a scathing review of the Oxford historian’s biography that essentially accused the author of academic malpractice.
For some reason, I decided to apply for party membership. At a training meeting, Fred introduced the idea of party members taking jobs in factories—to be closer to the working class, I suppose. The notion struck me as preposterous, and I laughed out loud. The other party prospects looked at me with horror. I hadn’t done the reading for the meeting and kept talking about Marx’s historical materialism, as introduced in The German Ideology. Soon after that training session, my application to the party was rejected. I had never been the typical recruit and was too influenced by postmodern thinking, Fred told me, as if delivering life-shattering news. To be honest, I was relieved. The party had saved me years of pushing the hairsplitting party line of this decrepit sect.
One might think that I’d have had enough by now, but I tried another Marxist sect, the most outrageous of them all—the Revolutionary Communist Party USA. This was a Maoist party that figured its leader, Bob Avakian, as the next in a direct line of succession from Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao.
I met with several members of the party over the course of months, including Andy and Smitty. Smitty was tall, heavyset, with curly dark-blond hair. He told me once, as we walked around NYU, that upon the revolution, the standard of living for most Americans would drop appreciably. He denounced “democracy,” which I didn’t realize at the time was actually an apologetic for totalitarian rule. When once I referred to myself as “working class,” Smitty scoffed and said that I was far from working class.
Then, one day in early spring, with John-Michael and his girlfriend, I attended a meeting where the party leader, otherwise in hiding, was to speak in a Brooklyn church. Once inside, the ushers demanded that we surrender our cellphones, which were sealed in plastic bags and locked in a safe. The doors of the church were then bolted shut. This concern for security struck me as sheer theatrics to make Avakian’s rare appearance seem more important and dangerous than it was. We sat in one of the pews near the front. Cornel West, an avowed Christian socialist, soon seated himself beside me on my right. Avakian was introduced and greeted with an uproarious applause of the kind usually reserved for rock stars. Meanwhile, he wore a Hawaiian shirt that barely covered a protruding gut and repeatedly ran his fingers through greasy, dirty-blond hair.
Despite touting his “new synthesis” of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, nothing in Avakian’s tirade represented anything remotely new. It was warmed-over sixties radicalism, delivered in gruff, vulgar cadences. I found Avakian’s expletives and Christianity bashing obscene, especially delivered as they were in a Christian church. I felt particularly uncomfortable for West. The shameless pandering to blacks also struck me as cringeworthy. When finally let out of our prison chamber after a four-hour rant, the three of us immediately debriefed and agreed that something was definitely “off” about Avakian and his cult. That day marked the end of my short involvement with the Revolutionary Communist Party USA.
For some time thereafter, my only connection to other Marxists was on Facebook. I had a large base of Marxist friends and was invited into various leftist and Marxist groups. These groups became collectively known as Leftbook, a notorious internet development that has recently been blamed by a contemporary Marxist-Leninist group for “destroying the leftist movement in America.” If corralling leftists into cyber silos is a travesty, then Leftbook surely is a culprit. I was involved in Leftbook primarily over summers, when I wasn’t busy teaching, and when I should have been conducting academic research and writing.
We discussed Marxist theory, Soviet history, revolutionary strategies, and a multiplicity of Marxist approaches, including the then au courant communization theory, and its main promulgators, the journal Endnotes. In a group called Aftermath, now apparently defunct, we shared files of Marxist texts and debated socialist arcana. I don’t remember what Aftermath meant or what it was the aftermath of. For me it was the aftermath of a vain search for a suitable Marxism.
I’m not sure how I learned of Loren Golder, but it might have been on Aftermath. Goldner had a spotty past; this much I’d heard. He’d been involved with the former Marxist but later conspiracist Lyndon LaRouche. Goldner’s discipleship under LaRouche had ended with the latter ironically accusing him of being a CIA agent.
Goldner headed a small group of left communists centered around a webzine, Insurgent Notes. He was a rather affable septuagenarian. With wild, wispy gray hair and bushy black eyebrows, he looked something like a wizard. We met several times at his favorite dive on Sixth Avenue and seemed to agree on most fundamentals. I learned that we held similar views about postmodernism and identity politics. He despised identity politics and pointed to the Nazis as a particularly egregious example. Among the articles I wrote for Insurgent Notes, at Goldner’s behest, was a (wishful) obituary of postmodernism. We both disdained the Left’s elitism and its denigration of the American working class. Together we complained about the hollowing out of its political organs, the unions and the Democratic Party. All of this was due to the West’s relationship with China, a satellite of Western capitalism. China, we agreed, was as bad as the USSR had been. It was established after a “bourgeois revolution with red flags.” The PRC wasn’t “real socialism” or even “state capitalism.” It represented a graduated and repressive transition to capitalism, the inevitable emergence of the value-form from a precapitalist society. This line of thinking, I realized much later, is a means for keeping hope alive for the development of “real socialism.” If China is actually a capitalist society, it confirms the orthodox Marxist position that socialism will develop only after industrial capitalism. “Real socialism” would thereby elude the stains of the Chinese Communist Party’s crimes.
I visited Goldner’s apartment one day, where he showed off his prodigious library consisting of walls of history, theory, and literary books. He had even written, among several others, a book about Herman Melville. When I posted something about his library on Facebook later that day, Goldner got wind and asked me to remove the post. He was worried that he might come across as too bookish to those Maoists with whom he had been involved in internecine battles since his trenchant criticisms of Maoism. He didn’t want to give his enemies additional fodder. After all, Maoism intentionally destroyed the intelligentsia during the Cultural Revolution.
At this point, my own position was “left of the Bolsheviks”—in the sense that I rejected Leninism and what passed for communism under Stalin and Mao. I decried the Bolsheviks’ routing of anarchists and of other socialist parties during the Red Terror. Lenin, and not only Stalin, was a butcher. I believed that with a true socialist revolution, “the vast majority” would become coterminous with the state and as such the state would essentially disappear.
I hadn’t thought through the implications of this position in terms of property. How, that is, would property be done away with, short of the use of force? I had never entertained the necessary use of violence for dislodging private property from its owners.
First, They Came for … Me
After such long devotion to leftism, you might be surprised to know that I was one of academia’s first victims of “cancel culture.” In fact, I was targeted before the phrase “cancel culture” was invented. It happened in the fall of 2016. In the spring of that year, my program at New York University, the program in liberal and global liberal studies, held a symposium on “social justice.” All faculty were required to attend. We had been asked to read the Atlantic article “The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, and proceeded to discuss it as a group. The article, tame as it was, was roundly criticized by the discussion leader and my colleagues who commented. They found the article hyperbolic and dismissed its claims as reactionary. Trigger warnings on syllabi and safe spaces were floated as legitimate practices. It was decided that a committee would be formed, called the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Working Group.
Sometime in August, faculty were asked to put a few lines on our syllabi announcing the new Bias Response Hotline. Bias reporting hotlines are mechanisms for students to report professors and fellow students who commit “bias infractions” or “microaggressions” to bias response teams among the administration. I had already written an essay criticizing trigger warnings, safe spaces, and bias reporting hotlines and decided there was no way I was putting anything on my syllabus promoting the Stasi-state Bias Response Hotline.
I started following the news about “social justice” outrages on college campuses. By early October, a moral panic had stricken academia at large. With the candidacy of Donald Trump, safe spaces to protect students from speech they couldn’t abide were all the rage. A Milo Yiannopoulos talk at NYU was